Ten years ago, a Bay Area teenager died by suicide after being expelled from school for substance abuse. He had been doing well academically and participated in sports.
"All the things the general public doesn't associate with someone who takes his life," said former Palo Alto Mayor Victor Ojakian, who knew the youth.
The teenager wasn't asked anything about why he was caught on campus smoking marijuana; he was simply expelled. A day later, he died.
"I always remembered that situation and wondered what could be done that could be helpful as opposed to just sending them home," Ojakian said.
Assembly Bill 1261, introduced by Assemblyman Marc Berman, D-Palo Alto, would have required school districts to consider whether a mandatory expulsion or zero tolerance policy related to substance abuse could deter students from seeking help. Substance abuse can be a risk factor for suicidal behavior, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Gov. Jerry Brown, however, vetoed the bill on Monday, stating that while he agrees with the goal of AB 1261, he believes it should be handled on the local level.
Both Berman and Ojakian, whose son died by suicide, were disappointed by the governor's decision.
AB 1261 isn't "very prescriptive," Berman said. The former Palo Alto City Council member felt it was a "light ask," but he acknowledged that the governor has a certain philosophy on the relationship between state and local agencies.
Ojakian, who wrote letters of support for the bill and encouraged community members to do the same, said that both the Palo Alto Unified School District's Board of Education and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention's San Francisco chapter also sent letters of support.
"I think it was a very useful piece of legislation because it wasn't based on (a) hypothetical; it was based on what would've helped in an actual situation," he said.
Berman said he and his office will continue to encourage school districts to re-evaluate the zero-tolerance policy and recognize the link between substance abuse and mental health issues.
"We're going to have more conversations with the administration and try to find out if we can get around these concerns and find a way, whether it's phrasing things differently or changing the proposal so it's something the governor would be comfortable with," he said.
Meanwhile, another bill that addresses suicide prevention is awaiting motion from the state Senate. Assembly Bill 89, authored by Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-Marin County, and co-authored by Berman, would require applicants for licensure as psychologists to complete at least six hours of training in suicide-risk assessment and intervention. It passed 72 to 1 in the Assembly with bipartisan support. Six other states already require psychologists and licensed health care professionals to complete minimum hours of training in suicide-risk assessment.
"Suicide kills twice as many people in California as homicide, but not all mental health care providers have the training they need in suicide-risk assessment and prevention," Levine said in a press release on April 20. "AB 89 will save lives by making sure that psychologists have the training they need to identify suicidal individuals."
The California Board of Psychology, which sponsored AB 89, conducted surveys and reviews of licensure requirements after the governor vetoed Assembly Bill 2198 in 2014; AB 2198 proposed similar requirements of training in suicide assessment and prevention — 15 hours for all mental health professionals.
Results showed that "the variance in training received in graduate and training programs does not adequately ensure that consumers would be consistently assisted by all of our licensees," Board President Stephen C. Phillips wrote in the Board's support message for AB 89.
According to Board Executive Officer Antonette Sorrick, between 3 to 7 percent of either schools or training programs were not covering suicide prevention and intervention in their curriculum at the time of the board’s survey.
"AB 89 will not only help promote public health through improving the state's suicide-prevention efforts, but also puts California in a leadership role with other states that protect consumers of psychological services through mandatory training in this critical area," he wrote.
Though the bill has faced some backlash from opponents who argue it should be left to licensees' discretion, Phillips said in a separate interview that "with such an important public health issue, we believe as a board that we need to mandate that training."
Ojakian and his wife have a history of suicide-prevention work — in institutes with youth, with Santa Clara County on strategic plans and on statewide committees. AB 89, however, provides something they haven't been able to address: suicide-prevention measures across age spans.
"It's not institution-specific; it's not geographic-specific; it's applicable to any Californian who comes into contact with a psychologist," he said. "All psychologists get training so it's working whether they see a young person or an adult or an older adult."
According to Ojakian, major law enforcement agencies such as the California State Sheriffs' Association, the California Police Chiefs Association and the California State Firefighters' Association as well as mental health organizations like the Steinberg Institute, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, The Trevor Project and Palo Alto youth collaborative Project Safety Net have come out in support of the bill.
He encourages community members to send their own letters of support.
Berman also asked Palo Altans to contact him if they have any ideas for policies or bills related to mental health.
"This is an important issue, we know, in Palo Alto," he said. "We're going to keep trying."
Any person who is feeling depressed, troubled or suicidal can call 1-800-784-2433 to speak with a crisis counselor. People in Santa Clara County can call 1-855-278-4204. Spanish speakers can call 1-888-628-9454.
People can reach trained counselors at Crisis Text Line by texting 741741.
Additional resources can be found here.
Links below provide more resources where one can receive help: